KOGELO, Kenya – Sen. Barack Obama pushed through surging crowds and hurtled down roads lined with screaming fans Saturday before settling into the calm of a quiet meal with his grandmother in the Kenyan hamlet where his father grew up and is buried.
Obama stopped at his father’s grave for a few moments before ending his rushed visit to the compound, a collection of small buildings, towering mango trees and assorted dogs and chickens.
“Anytime a child comes back to a parent’s grave, it makes you reflect on your mortality and the next generation,” Obama said, adding that he was especially happy to be able to bring his two daughters along.
Obama also spent much of the day studying the toll AIDS is taking on African families. He and his wife took HIV tests as thousands of people watched, and he visited a project that helps grandmothers find the money to care for children orphaned by AIDS.
Obama’s 85-year-old grandmother, Sarah, met him at the foot of the small hill where her house sits and hugged him. Then they and Obama’s family walked to the house amid a crush of relatives, friends and reporters. Someone carried a huge American flag.
The family shared a meal of chicken, porridge, cabbage and more. His grandmother had told reporters that she would make eggs, which she said was the appropriate thing for a grandmother to serve a visiting grandson.
“She said she was only going to fix eggs, but I think somebody convinced her to go overboard,” Obama said.
The Illinois Democrat began his day with an appearance at a hospital in Kisumu, Kenya’s third-largest city. Thousands of people waited for him, even climbing trees for better views, as he visited a mobile HIV-testing center. When Obama appeared, the crowd surged forward and had to be held back by police.
Obama and his wife, Michelle, entered the mobile lab and underwent HIV tests in an effort to reduce the public stigma associated with testing in Kenya. He said the results were good news but the most important thing was the control that comes with knowing their HIV status.
“If a U.S. senator can get tested and his wife can get tested, then everybody in this crowd can get tested. Everybody in this city can get tested,” Obama said.
As he left, people surrounded his car and the others with him, running alongside.
People lined up along city streets and rural highways and dirt roads to cheer Obama as his caravan passed by.
With his Kenyan heritage, Obama is getting a warm reception everywhere, but the reaction has been even stronger in this part of the country – home to the Luo tribe, which includes Obama’s family.
Kenyans have claimed Obama as one of their own, even though he was mostly raised in Hawaii and did not know his Kenyan father well. This is his third visit to Kenya but his first since being elected the United States’ only black senator in 2004.
“We love him so much. He has the same blood as our origins,” said Austin Ochieng as he waited in a tree for the chance to see Obama. “We are expecting a lot of development from him. We also expect employment. We need him to talk to our government.”
Obama’s father, also named Barack, grew up herding goats and going to tin-roof schools, but he won a college scholarship in Hawaii. There, he married Obama’s mother. The two soon separated, however, and Obama’s father eventually returned to Kenya and worked as a government economist.
His father died in a car crash in 1982, leaving three wives, six sons and a daughter.
The woman Obama calls “Granny” raised his father but was actually his stepmother, not his biological mother.
She lives in a hilly, rocky region along the equator near Lake Victoria. Goats and cattle graze along the roads.
After Obama visited his grandmother for about 45 minutes they emerged to face a battalion of reporters.
With a granddaughter interpreting, she declared Obama’s American success “fantastic” and said it had improved her quality of life. Citing a local adage, she said she now can drink whole milk instead of skim.